Gardening experts from Life is a Garden share their top tips for starting a container food garden in a small space…

You don’t need acres of garden to grow fresh salads and veggies. All you need is a balcony, patio or a postage-stamp of a garden, some good-quality terracotta pots, the right growing medium and a watering can, and you’re A for Away.

Why terracotta pots are best 

Whenever we’re asked what containers to use on a patio, we tend to recommend a nice big terracotta pot or a matching set of terracotta pots.

Why terracotta and not plastic? Terracotta pots are made of clay, and natural materials like clay tend to work better with plants. Terracotta pots can breathe, allowing air and even moisture to move through the walls, keeping plants healthier and helping to prevent fungal root disease.

Plants don’t like sudden changes in temperature, and terracotta pots act as insulation, slowing down variations in temperature.

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Weight is also an advantage – terracotta pots are heavier than plastic or wood, which is great when you have a cat that keeps rubbing itself against your veggie pots and knocking them over!  Finally, terracotta pots get better and better with age, weathering and developing a beautiful patina that cannot be replicated.

What to plant 

Choosing what to plant can be overwhelming when you’re starting out. Our first rule of thumb is to plant what you eat.

If you love cooking with herbs, start by planting things like rosemary, thyme, mint and origanum.

Another thing we suggest is to mix things up a bit – don’t grow only edibles. Beautiful ornamentals can do well in containers alongside their edible bedfellows and some have the added benefit of being edible too. Viola flowers can be tossed in a salad, while the flowers of lavender and calendula have a range of uses.

A good base 

The key to potting success is a growing medium that can fulfil a plant’s nutritional needs.

Start by mixing up a big batch of potting medium of four parts good-quality potting soil, one part palm peat (soaked in water beforehand) and a big handful of pelletised organic plant food.

Place a handful of gravel or stones in the bottom of the pot to ensure proper drainage and prevent the drainage holes from becoming blocked. Then fill the pot with potting medium to about two thirds full, place the plants in the pots and fill up the pots to a few centimetres below the rim. 

Keep them hydrated 

Plants will put up with a lot, but you can’t expect them to survive without water.

Containers have a limited water-holding capacity, which is why we recommend adding water-retentive materials such as palm peat to the potting mix.

Check if the soil is dry by pushing a finger into the first inch or so – if it is dry, add water. In hot weather, you’ll need to water your containers daily, in the morning before it gets too hot. Check again in the afternoon and water again if necessary.

In cooler weather, especially in seasons when plants aren’t growing as fast, you can get away with watering pots about two to three times a week.

Remember that overwatering can be as bad as underwatering, so always do the finger test before watering.

Care

Container-grown plants need regular care, including feeding, as the nutrients in the limited quantity of soil get depleted.

You will find a great selection of pots and all the other supplies you need to get your container garden started at your nearest garden centre.